Saturday, May 26, 2012

History, Queen of the Sciences

The late Sudha Shenoy once said to me, "They are approaching this theoretically, but the real world is historical, not theoretical."

I've thought about that remark a lot since then, and I think I have an idea what Sudha was saying. All of special sciences abstract as part of their essential nature: they are constituted by the style of abstraction in which they engage. If physics stopped looking at the world only in terms of forces and motions, and began, say, taking emotions and plans into account, it would cease being physics.

But history is only abstract accidentally: the historian and her readers are human beings, and no one has time to read or write everything that happened. Nevertheless, as details are added and abstractness reduced, the work becomes more, not less, historical. So history comes closer to the real world than any theoretical science can.

An interesting corollary here is that, far from history being a sad stepchild of the "real," experimental sciences, that would adopt their methods if only it could, in fact, the experimental sciences are utterly dependent upon history. (This was noted by Collingwood decades ago.)

The idea of an experiment itself is an historical achievement on the part of a historical group of people. There is no general experiment to see if something counts as a genuine experiment, for how would we know if that "experiment-testing" experiment was itself a genuine experiment? No, it is through an exercise in historical understanding that scientists determine if something counts as an experiment, as they consult the history of successful and of failed experiments in their discipline, and see how the one in question appears in light of that record. And it is through their historical understanding of a series of such experiments done in the past that scientists judge that a theory is discredited, or worth testing further, or so well-confirmed that there is no sense bothering to check it further (at present).

The experimental sciences are dependent on history

No experimental test for what counts as an experiment.

1 comment:

  1. Ms. Shenoy sounds a tad bit cynical.

    I understand that this is not directly relevant to your post, but she seems to have suggested that every economics department in the world could be shut down without damage to the world of ideas. I don't know, even people who don't like economics seem to get something out of econ classes.



"If your approach to mathematics is mechanical not mystical, you're not going to go anywhere." -- Nassim Nicholas Taleb